The disclaimer is fully stated in Part One of Penance. Any aspect of the story which is not owned by those mentioned in the disclaimer belong to the author, C. Knox Binkley.
Buck kept his eye trained on the target. He couldn't tell much in the shadows. What if these were the guys who'd hurt the kid? The rage he'd kept at bay made his stomach churn and he gripped the rifle more tightly. Images flooded his mind - JD in that bastard's grip, the blade cutting his already hurt face, the boy's hands being tied over his head, Chiles tearing the back of his shirt, the first lash of the whip. Buck shuddered with rage and almost pulled the trigger before the targets were in range. But he waited, still reliving the horrors - Vin's lifeless body being taken to Tascosa - and Chris . . .
He had never been able to rescue Chris Larabee - not from his grief, not from alcohol, not from Jacob Chiles.
No, he couldn't save him, but he could sure as hell avenge him.
And he'd start with these two.
Two men. The shadows still obscured his vision. But he could still make out two figures.
Wait. Was one supporting the other? Was one injured? Buck reluctantly pulled his rifle up and watched. If one was injured, he may be able to take them down without having to shoot this rifle from the Dark Ages. His revenge may have to wait. The men didn't appear to be searching for them. In fact, it looked like they were setting up camp for the night. Buck still couldn't see their faces, but they were close enough for him to tell more about what they were doing.
The injured man sat down and the other squatted beside him and started rummaging through a knapsack.
God, JD needed water.
Buck watched the man pulling items out of the bag. It looked as though he were examining the contents for the first time. He would look at an item and set it aside, as though he were categorizing everything. Until he found his own personal motherlode.
The man stood slowly and stiffly. With a practiced hand, he brought the cherroot up to his lips. Buck didn't have to wait to see him light the smoke to know it was Chris Larabee. He knew his moves.
Buck's heart raced and his face broke into a broad smile. He didn't dare call out to him. What if there were renegades from the installment camped in these rocks for the night? Josiah and Buck and the young soldier hadn't been able to scout the whole area, so there was no way to know how secure the area was. He couldn't call out. But he could run like hell.
Buck recklessly set out to make his way down the rocky slope.
Footsteps - running.
Chris and Vin both grabbed weapons. Whoever was coming toward them obviously wasn't concerned with being found out.
Chris froze for a moment, dumbfounded, then he holstered his weapon. Vin looked puzzled but Chris was smiling. "Buck," he explained simply.
A moment later their friend rounded the corner. He looked at Chris and nodded. They didn't need words. In one move, Buck hugged his oldest friend and Chris held on to him. The emotion was too strong to express. The relief palpable.
Buck sighed his relief audibly. Finally he backed up and looked his friend over. He grabbed his friend's neck and nodded. Chris was alive, thank God.
Thank God. Buck bit his lip and uttered his silent prayer of gratitude. Maybe God was with them. It would be all right.
"You okay, Buck?" Vin asked.
"Hey pard," Buck said, kneeling beside the tracker. "I'm fine. But I thought you were . . ."
"So did I."
Buck looked Vin in the eye and assessed his condition. "How's your head?"
"Sore - better." Vin tried to smile. "I'm better"
"Are you really?"
Vin nodded ever so slightly. Buck patted his shoulder and stood. Then he looked intensely at Chris. "Are you hurt?" he asked. Chris shook his head, no.
"Are you alone?"
Buck shook his head, no. "Josiah and I brought JD here. We gotta get him some water."
"He's alive??" Vin jumped to his feet.
"Barely," Buck started replacing the contents of the knapsack. "But he won't be for long. We've gotta get him some help." He was almost afraid to ask. "Is Nathan . . .?"
Chris' expression became hard. "Those . . . soldiers. They've taken him."
"God, they'll lynch him," Buck said.
"Not if I get there first. And as soon as we can get JD and Vin to safety, I'm going after him."
"I'll go with you," Buck said soberly.
"What can we do for JD?" Vin asked in his gentle voice.
Buck shook his head. "I wish I knew. We got out of there with nothing. No water, no blankets, nothing. I don't know how the kid has survived this long. He's got such a high fever. And he's . . ." The words caught in his throat. How could he begin to describe the kid's condition? They would see soon enough.
The three made their way into the rocks, filling each other in as they went. Once they were close, Buck announced their approach so Josiah wouldn't ambush them.
"You get 'em?" Josiah asked.
"Sure did." There was a smile in Buck's voice that Josiah didn't expect and he was watching the path curiously when they appeared.
Josiah stood with his mouth hanging open. "Praise God!" he finally uttered. He walked over to his friends and embraced them. The big man's eyes filled as the relief flooded him. He took the knapsack from Buck and easily tossed it across his strong shoulder. Once he was satisfied that his friends were indeed all right, he asked the question that had been nagging at him. "Nathan?"
"Soldiers took him." Chris' answer was short. Josiah looked at the ground. He couldn't bear the thought of his friend having to spend any time in shackles, being treated as less than human.
"I'll find him." Chris' voice bore an authority that comforted the preacher.
"We'll find him," Josiah said as he put a hand on Chris' shoulder - but Chris wasn't looking at him.
He was looking beyond him to the black-haired boy lying face-down on the hard ground. His heart was in his throat. The reality of the day's horror lay in front of him, shivering and occasionally moaning even in his unconsciousness. How slight he looked. How young.
Chris walked over to him slowly, Vin on his heels. Buck went ahead of them and resumed his familiar place at JD's side. He reached up and stroked the boy's hair again. It probably comforted Buck more than it did the kid. Almost in slow motion, Chris knelt beside their youngest - at once relieved that he was alive and horrified that he was suffering so on his behalf - on behalf of all his friends.
Chris squeezed his eyes closed. Vin had settled on the ground beside Buck and put a firm hand on his shoulder. Buck loved that kid - they all did. They couldn't bear watching him die a second time in one day. Buck eased JD up and poured a sip of water into his parched mouth. Most of it dripped down his chin. He didn't wake up.
Chris took a deep breath and pulled off the sticky, damp shirts that covered the boy, exposing his mutilated back and legs. Even the seasoned gunfighter was not prepared for what he saw. Chris' jaw tightened and his lip quivered . . . in anger? Grief? It didn't matter which. Vin quickly turned away and fought back the nausea that had plagued him earlier that day. He couldn't bear seeing the boy hurt like that. This time it was Buck who hooked an arm around the tracker's shoulders - supporting him through the dry heaves.
"Easy . . ." Buck's voice was more of a murmur - an intonation he had repeated to JD all evening, now comforting Vin as well. Vin's heaves gave way to soft sobs. Buck held him. They all needed to grieve for the day - for the kid - for each other.
Chris grit his teeth. He wouldn't let the boy die. He'd do whatever it took. The gunfighter pulled off his big duster. He had been able to rescue it from the little encampment before he and Vin took off. Ever so gently, he laid it over his young friend. It swallowed the boy. Chris tucked it all the way around.
"Vin . . . "
The tracker was a step ahead of him, already pulling off his coat. He stood up and laid it over the duster. Buck nodded at Chris. They would sweat the fever out of the boy.
Vin swayed a bit.
"Whoa!" Buck caught him and steadied him. "Come on, pard. You need sleep." Vin didn't argue. He let Buck lead him to a spot near the soldier. Buck laid a mat down for him and helped him get settled. He rolled Vin's overshirt and made a lousy pillow. But it was better than the rock surface. Vin was asleep immediately. "Sleep well, my friend," Buck said, and he returned to JD and Chris. Josiah had resumed his perch on the mountain.
"He's been on watch for a long time. He needs sleep, too," Buck said as he watched the preacher.
Chris never looked away from JD. "Josiah is where he wants to be right now," Chris said. "He'll be all right."
The old friends sat in silence for a while, the only sound the soft breathing of the sleepers. JD wasn't shivering as much. Maybe that was good.
"Go to sleep, Buck," Chris said. "You look like hell."
"I can't leave him." Buck's voice was raspy and tired.
"He'll need you tomorrow. We've gotta get him to safety, and you need to be strong. You need to be alert. We have no idea what's out there."
"What about you?" Buck asked.
"I'm ok." A sideways grin crossed Chris' face. "I'll wake you up in a couple of hours."
Buck nodded and felt JD's forehead one more time. The boy was still burning up. Chris pulled Buck's hand away. "It's gotta work its way out of him. He'll be ok. I'll wake you up if there's any change."
Reluctantly, Buck got up. "I'm glad you're all right," he told his friend.
"You, too." Chris' words said little.
But his eyes said everything.
And Buck understood.
The night was deathly quiet. Buck slept fitfully. Vin slept soundly, a healing sleep - finally.
Chris lay his head back. What would they do tomorrow? They'd have to get supplies. They didn't have enough water. They certainly didn't have enough food. And he had no idea where they were.
JD coughed a bit and it hurt him. "God . . ." he breathed.
"Easy, son." Chris lifted him a little. JD coughed again, and Chris realized he was coughing up blood. He grabbed one of the old shirts tore off a clean part then carefully wiped the kid's mouth. JD was becoming agitated. "You're all right JD. Just breathe. . ."
"Hurts. . ." He coughed again.
"I know . . ." Chris positioned himself so he could support him. He carefully pulled the boy up and held him as he struggled to breathe. The legendary gunfighter spoke gently, calming him, comforting him.
For a moment, Chris was holding his own son. He hadn't been able to comfort Adam. Maybe he could help now.
Buck awoke to a bright morning sun . . .
And JD's voice.
Buck nearly tripped jumping up before he was actually awake.
Vin was sitting beside the boy, holding his hand.
The duster and the coat lay to the side and JD's lower body was covered with Vin's shirt. He couldn't tolerate anything touching his back. And he didn't understand why he hurt.
But anyone who looked at him did. In the light of day his back looked so much worse, and it appeared to be getting infected. Buck bit his lip and his eyes met Vin's - searching for . . . hope, something. But the tracker could only shake his head.
When Buck reached the kid's side, he realized that JD's words were random. He had not regained consciousness. And his words, punctuated with weak sobs, broke their hearts.
"No more . . . don't. . ." He was writhing in pain. Vin squeezed his hand. Buck stroked his hair.
"Mama . . ." The boy's breathing was agitated. "They got Buck . . . I can't . . ." A soft sob escaped his throat. "I can't . . . help him."
Buck tried talking to him, but JD didn't know him.
"Don't leave me . . . Mama . . ."
The young soldier who had helped them escape stood off to the side and watched everything with wide fearful eyes.
Vin wet a cloth with a bit of their precious water and he lay it across JD's neck.
The boy settled a bit, but he continued murmuring "don't leave me" like a mantra.
Buck felt sick. He leaned over to Vin.
"I'm gonna f---ing kill every last one of them."
Vin didn't answer, but his eyes flashed in angry silent agreement.
The soldier withdrew from the scene - suddenly ashamed of the remnants of the uniform he was still wearing.
OK, now he had his bearings. They were southwest of Four Corners. From the back of the horse, Chris Larabee had been able to scout a bit. He began to recognize the change in terrain and could assess the distance from Four Corners. It would be a day's ride at least. And they were gonna be mostly on foot. It would be better not to move JD at all, but there were no resources close. And there was little security where they were.
The hoofprints which he had picked up beside the rock stand led almost due north. That was good. Chris would lead his travellers northeast. Their paths wouldn't cross.
The same oppressive sun that had punished them yesterday was every bit as relentless today. The tired gunfighter pressed forward toward Four Corners until he found water. He eased himself down from the horse and thrust his calloused hands into the clear cold stream. Cupping his hands, he brought the water to his dry lips and drank.
It was good. Chris hadn't realized how parched he was. He drank like he couldn't get enough. Then he drank some more. Finally his thirst was satisfied. He splashed his face. He hadn't even realized he was sunburned. He poured the water down the front of his shirt. The cold was invigorating. He filled the canteens he had brought with him, and galloped back to the rock formation.
It was slow going. JD had been tied facedown to a buckboard that had been hitched to the horse - certainly not the easiest way to travel. On the contrary, he was jostled so much that Josiah proposed that carrying him would have been easier. The boy would fade in and out of consciousness. Yet even unconscious, he would moan or sob. During his rare lucid moments, he was in agony.
With every step, the men's resolve grew. This would not go unanswered. Josiah easily supported Vin - Vin's arm looped around the preacher's neck. The tracker insisted that he could manage fine on his own.
Buck stayed close to JD, watching him. Listening for some word that would assure him that the kid would come back to them.
But the boy was far away.
Chris was walking ahead of the weary little group, watching the horizon for signs of any trouble. The blonde haired Confederate soldier kept watch behind them. And they made their way across the barren expanse, the promise of water and rest encouraging them to press onward.
The first shot spooked the horse, but Josiah managed to hang on to the lead line. A flurry of shots followed, one ricocheting off of the buckboard, and one catching Buck in the ankle. He screamed and rolled dangerously close to the hooves of the terrified horse. Immediately, Vin threw himself over Buck and took quick aim at the band of heavily armed men racing toward them on horseback. Chris Larabee had already picked off two and was still shooting. Buck squirmed out from under Vin and looked for JD. God, his ankle hurt. But he had to do something. On the buckboard, the kid was a perfect target. Buck searched his pockets for a knife, then he pulled himself up and cut JD loose. Just as he did, the horse bolted, and JD rolled heavily off the back of the buckboard.
Buck looked up in time to see one of the attackers taking aim at Josiah. He reached frantically for the pistol he had been carrying and, with hardly time to aim, he fired a shot.
Buck steeled himself against the blinding pain in his ankle and forced himself to look for JD.
It was too late. God help him, it was too late.
The kid was curled up watching a man standing over him . . .
Pulling the trigger of a shotgun aimed at his heart.
"NOOOOOO!!" Buck screamed. The blast rocked everything around it. Buck threw himself on the short man with the shotgun. He dug the pistol into the man's ribs and pulled the trigger.
Nothing. There were no shots left. The two rolled over and over, and Buck realized he was fighting one of the men who had whipped JD - a man who finally finished what he had started just yesterday. Buck found his knife again and just as the muscled assailant had gotten a better hold on his shotgun, Buck killed him. He reached back to stab the dead man again, tears streaming down his face, but a hand caught his before he could. He turned fiery eyes toward the person who held him.
The preacher pulled him out of the way and after a bewildering moment, Buck realized that the enemy was losing ground.
Someone was helping them. In fact, the band of assailants was surrounded by twenty or twenty-five gunmen, And the situation was neutralized very quickly.
Buck was dazed.
"JD." He spoke softly and he and Josiah looked over where JD had faced his killer.
Both of them saw the dead boy.
With blonde hair.
Who had stepped in front of the black-haired boy.
And taken a bullet for him.